Authors: Richard Neer
Fresh from his L.A. triumph, the mystery man was brought in to consult at all the RKO stations, including WOR-FM. Its days as a free-form station were numbered. Drake probably thought he could work with such a distinguished air staff, but the freedom Muni, Rosko, and Murray had tasted was a powerful elixir, and one by one they resigned or were forced out under Drake’s constraints. The free-form experiment was completely over at WOR-FM by October of 1967. WBAI, the Pacifica public station in New York, gave the displaced jocks an hour forum to vent their complaints about how the consultant had ruined their station. Critics in the print media, both public and trade journals, joined in. Most gave RKO no chance after dismantling such a work of art. They predicted disaster for Drake and his “West Coast” sound.
Within months, Drake-Chenault had the next laugh. In the Pulse surveys, WOR-FM’s share of the New York audience quadrupled to a 16, second only to WABC, which had vaulted to 26 shares under Sklar. It may not have been innovative or exciting radio, but it was consistent and, as
put it, “a smoothly modulated mixture of pop favorites.”
The great progressive experiment seemed dead in New York, and critics ate their words, noting the enormous ratings success of BOSS radio. Drake’s consultancy grew far beyond the RKO stations, and he picked his spots well, rarely venturing into a situation where the odds were against him. His few failures occurred when hubris caused him to disregard his own formula, or when citizen groups protested his intent to rob them of a beloved format, as they did in Washington, D.C., when he announced the takeover of a popular classical station. Drake-Chenault enjoyed a decade-long reign as kings of the FM radio world.
But despite the devastating dispossession in New York, the hardy seeds of free form had been sown. They already were growing on the West Coast, and the survivors of WOR-FM were merely wounded, and their spirit remained strong.
In late 1967, I was oblivious to what was happening at the big stations in Manhattan mere miles across the East River from Garden City. I was busy trying to save my fledgling career. I had only a few days to prepare for my professional debut, and since I’d never listened to WLIR, I figured I’d better get acquainted with it in a hurry. It was rough sledding for an eighteen-year-old. I tuned in the night I was hired and heard a man with an incredibly deep voice, extolling the virtues of a quaint expensive restaurant called the Wee Tappee Inn in Old Westbury, Long Island, old-money territory. The announcer sounded so worldly, so knowledgeable—as if he dined there several nights a week. It was intimidating as hell. This guy was probably in his late forties and would regard me as some snot-nosed kid who didn’t belong on his sophisticated radio station. The music he played was the very stuff I’d had so many arguments with my parents about—vanilla, syrupy, soporific instrumentals. For all my suffering, I was paid the rich sum of a dollar ten an hour. I’d made more the previous summer washing dishes at a New Jersey diner and tending the greens at the Saddle River Country Club.
I was scheduled to go on the air Saturday morning from eight until one. Ted Webb had asked me to come in Friday afternoon so he could show me the ropes. I personally doubted that a couple of hours’ training would be sufficient but he had confidence that I could handle it and I didn’t want to create uncertainty in his mind by sharing my own reservations. After classes Friday, I journeyed through the catacombs of the Garden City Hotel until I reached the station. For the first few weeks, I don’t think I took the same route twice; that’s how confusing the underground maze was.
Ted knew that I had learned to engineer my own program at WALI, a practice called “combo-ing.” Most major stations employ engineers to run the board, or audio console, for the jocks, but small-time radio is able to reduce expenses by having one man perform the tasks of announcing and engineering. It’s akin to carrying on an in-depth conversation while driving a stick-shift car in heavy traffic. After a while it becomes second nature but if you’re new at it, both skills suffer. Learning to run the board was the least of my worries, I thought. Pronouncing those big foreign names of the composers—now
made me nervous.
Little did I know that the symbiosis between announcing and engineering would almost end my employment at WLIR as soon as it began. My first mistake was an understandable one. I had assumed that since WALI was a minor college AM station, its equipment would be as outdated and ineffective as any imaginable. Adelphi wasn’t exactly known for its broadcasting curriculum, like Syracuse or Northwestern. Therefore, the equipment had to be whatever they could muster from some commercial station’s discards, held together only by the ingenuity of John Schmidt. WLIR’s facility had to be light-years ahead.
As Webb explained how things worked, I was lost in a daze of horror—I couldn’t concentrate on what he was saying. The audio console must have predated WALI’s by at least ten years. It looked like something Edwin Armstrong had jury-rigged before the war. The Civil War. There were seven huge unlabeled black knobs across the front, topped by little dark switches that resembled telegraph keys. Two VU meters were clipping away above the keys. Everything was channeled through the two large knobs in the center. It actually looked much simpler than WALI’s multichanneled console.
“Where are the cart decks, Ted?” I asked innocently. “Cart,” or cartridge, decks, are units that resemble old eight-track tape players. All radio stations play their commercials on these. Generally, there are four or more, rack mounted and run by remote control. The operator simply slides the tape into a slot, punches a button, and boom! instant commercial. The cartridges could also play songs or short programs. Cart decks were commonly used on Top Forty stations for music, since vinyl 45s or albums tended to scratch and deteriorate upon repeated spins, whereas tape could be replayed hundreds of times with no noticeable degradation. Most studios also have them linked together, so that if several spots in a row are scheduled, you merely had to start the first one and upon completion it would trigger the second and so on until the set of commercials was over.
“We don’t have any,” he replied tersely.
“How do you play commercials, then?” I wondered aloud.
“With this . . . the spot tape machine.” He pointed at a ramshackle gray box labeled “Spotmaster,” with one pointer and a hundred or so markings: A1, 2, 3, 4; B1, 2, 3, 4, etc. He slid the top lid open to reveal a large flap of celluloid with narrow grooves. It was held on a metal spool by cellophane tape. I was tempted for a moment to think it was some new technology that I was unaware of, but from its appearance, it had to be older than the audio console. Webb explained, “You just dial up the commercial, let’s say J3, hit this button, and—”
I heard a muffled voice, followed by rumbles and then a flapping sound.
“Damn, it’s come loose again,” he swore. The celluloid had separated from the spool and was flapping around the innards of the machine until Webb turned it off. “It’s very important to turn the unit off immediately if you hear the flapping sound. Otherwise the tape will shred and we’ll lose all our commercials.”
I tried to hide my dismay. The cellophane tape obviously had dried up under the heat of the machine’s internal works. It wasn’t hard to imagine this happening on a regular basis. Plus, there were other problems I could anticipate right away. First, there was no remote control and the unit was three feet behind the broadcast position. Meaning that when you went to commercial, you had to close your microphone, slide back on your roller chair, and locate the start button. That had to take at least a second. Then, the sliding dial had minuscule markings and didn’t click firmly into position. So you might think you were playing J3 when in reality you were playing J2. You could jiggle the dial over to the proper spot, but if it wasn’t aligned precisely, you got muffled sound at half-volume. But these were things Webb had to deal with daily so he must have been aware of them.
“Ted, what happens when you have three spots in a row?” I asked. Most stations had at least that many.
“Well, you can do it a couple of ways. You can wait until the first one is finished, hit the rewind button, and then slide the dial over to the next number and hit play again. You’ve got to wait till the green light comes on or it won’t be fully rewound and the next spot will start in the middle. Or else you can plan it so that you alternate live reads with taped spots, or use the spot tape once, then a reel-to-reel spot, then a spot tape again. Got it?”
He pointed toward two ancient Roberts home tape recorders. My dad had better and newer ones in his basement. Any time there were commercial breaks, you had to find the proper tape from a disorganized pile of five-inch reels stacked randomly on a desk, thread it onto the machine, cue it to the beginning, and hit the play button. Again, there was no remote control on the tape decks and they were a few feet farther back than the spot tape machine. What a nightmare.
But the biggest problems were yet to come. I noticed there were four turntables in the studio, a bit unusual because most places had only two. And they were not the rugged broadcast variety I was used to, but home units made by a local manufacturer. “Must break a lot of needles cueing these up,” I remarked.
“Uh, Mr. Reiger doesn’t believe in cueing up records. Thinks it wrecks the stylus and scratches the opening of the song.”
The Firesign Theatre once released a comedy album entitled
Everything You Know Is Wrong.
That precisely described my feelings at the moment. I had been taught that anathema to all radio was dead air—pauses when nothing is transmitted. Certainly in Top Forty or BOSS radio, pacing is all important. Everything has to come with machine-gun rapidity, with no silence—ever! But given the equipment at WLIR, every time you went from one record to another, there had to be a long moment of nothingness. From live announcements to commercials, a second or two of silence. One commercial to the next—dead air.
Then came the topper. WLIR broadcast in stereo, but each channel was controlled by a separate knob or fader. All four turntables were on the same two faders, as were the tape decks and spot tapes. To go from one record to the next, you had to turn both knobs down to zero, hit the switch to go from the left turntable to the right, start the right turntable, and then turn both knobs back up simultaneously as the music started. But this had to be done without cueing the record beforehand—just dropping the needle in the space between tracks and guessing how long it would take before the music started. Good luck!
Oh, by the way, the switches to go from one turntable to the next were old and had long since lost their click stops. So, like with the spot tape, you might think you were on turntable one when you were really on turntable three. And since they were home machines, not professional units, they didn’t get up to speed immediately, taking two revolutions to achieve 33
rpm. If you estimated the start time incorrectly, the record would “wow” in. In other words, it would start slowly and gradually accelerate until it reached the proper speed. As Webb explained these eccentricities to me, I broke into a cold sweat.
That night, I lay awake, not able to sleep at all, anticipating the disaster that was to be my professional broadcast premiere.
For Bill “Rosko” Mercer, the end of free form on WOR-FM in the early autumn of 1967 was a dream dashed. He found himself out of work again, and was faced with the unpleasant prospect of returning to a format he despised or finding an alternate way to make a living. Muni was given the opportunity to keep his shift, and Drake told him that he could continue to play what he wanted. But Scott’s experience taught him that he wouldn’t remain an island for long and his oasis of freedom would soon perish in the harsh desert of strict formatics. It was fortunate for both of them that the initial success at WOR-FM had not gone unnoticed.
WNEW-AM had been one of the top stations in New York for decades. Boasting such talent as William B. Williams, Gene Klavan and Dee Finch, Jim Lowe, Julius La Rosa, and Ted Brown, it was the city’s favorite place to hear all the great standards. They broadcast Giants football on Sundays and had a full-service news and sports operation. A Metromedia station, they were owned by John Kluge, who has since become one of the richest men in America. Year after year, profits increased and advertising revenue exceeded ratings because Madison Avenue loved the affluent audience WNEW attracted. But WNEW-FM was a different story.
The station was originally headquartered at 565 Fifth Avenue, sandwiched into a small area next to the massive AM complex. Like most owners, Kluge was content to simulcast his AM signal on FM until the FCC’s duopoly ruling in 1964. Given no choice by the commission, Jack Sullivan, head of Metromedia’s radio division, charged George Duncan with the job of inventing a new format for the FM stations.
George, the general manager of WNEW-FM, was a beefy, florid Irishman who wore his Gaelic heritage and Catholic faith like a banner. He favored crisply pressed dark suits, and kept his bald bespectacled head immaculately barbered. A graduate of Cornell University, the ex-Marine once served as a milkman and a New York State trooper.
Duncan was justly proud of his service record, and Scott Muni had to break up more than a few bar fights late at night when some inebriated patron insulted the Corps or the Catholic church in George’s presence. And those who knew of these twin loyalties were not advantaged if they tried to use them dishonestly to advance their cause. On one such occasion, a hotshot young salesman petitioning him for a job had nearly clinched the position when Duncan mentioned in passing that he had been a Marine.
“Oh, yeah. I was, too,” mused the job seeker, trying to ingratiate himself further.
“Really?” said Duncan, with a raised eyebrow. He didn’t look like an ex-Marine. “What was your serial number?”
“Oh jeez, I don’t know. I forgot,” came the answer. The man, despite his otherwise impressive credentials, didn’t get the job, because no Marine ever forgets his serial number for the rest of his life. The man was a fraud, and if he’d lie about that, could George ever trust him with anything else?
Duncan looked forward to experimenting with something that could generate another profit center for Metromedia when the duopoly ruling came down. His original blueprint was to form a station that played similar music to WNEW, but with this twist: The disc jockeys would all be women.
By today’s standards, this doesn’t sound so radical, but in 1966, this was a completely alien concept. Women weren’t generally accepted in the media at all except as window dressing. There was the token TV weather girl, often the butt of the anchors’ sexist humor. But they weren’t taken seriously as reporters or disc jockeys. Their voices were thought not to cut through the limited frequency response of AM radio, and on television and in the workplace, they were seen as a distraction.
But Duncan posited that with FM’s wider bandwidth, a quality woman’s voice could attract male listeners or other women, who might take pride in their sisters’ accomplishments. With the civil rights movement and feminism gaining momentum in the sixties, the idea seemed to have merit. Four hundred women auditioned, and among those hired were Alison Steele, Nell Bassett, Sally Jessy Raphael (yes, her), and Rita Sands, who later became a news anchor at WCBS radio.
Duncan’s plan never got a real chance. Initially, male reaction wasn’t positive and women seemed to resent the idea of their mates being seduced over the radio by female jocks. Madison Avenue firmly believed that women could not sell products to other women. Metromedia Group head Jack Sullivan had told George in a casual meeting that “something is happening in rock music” and suggested that he visit some clubs in Greenwich Village and experience the new phenomenon close up. In addition, Duncan was being handed a gift by RKO’s abdication and wasn’t about to return it.
The following story ran in
on October 28, 1967:
Bill “Rosko” Mercer, the former all night personality with WOR-FM who resigned a couple of weeks ago, has been hired by WNEW-FM for a progressive rock show and will handle a seven days a week stint, 7–midnight. George Duncan, station manager at WNEW-FM, said the decision for the change in the programming and image of WNEW-FM was “made strictly on Rosko’s availability.” WNEW-FM is “building for the future,” he said. The station plays easy listening music. WNEW-FM was the first all-girl station in New York. The girls are being retained for the daytime operations of the station. Duncan said he saw no reason why the combination of the girls daytime and Rosko nighttime shouldn’t work. He said Rosko will play “meaningful” music. “Our music has progressed in this direction for some while. Rosko’s availability only pushed up our timetable for the change.”
It wouldn’t be the first or last time that a radio executive misled the press. Duncan had already laid the groundwork for Jonathan Schwartz of WNAC in Boston to do middays, and Scott Muni was in negotiations to come in to host afternoons. One by one, the women were replaced, with the exception of Steele, who was sent to the Siberia of overnights.
Rosko started on October 30, 1967, followed by Schwartz a month later and Muni in early December. “This Rosko thing has been unbelievable,” George Duncan told
“Not only in advertising, and his show was immediately sold out, but in mail pull. In one day, we received letters from a psychologist, an anthropologist, and a physician, all saying they were glad we hired Rosko. The doctor said that he felt that the only station left for him and his wife was WQXR after WOR-FM changed.” In that same issue, Duncan admitted that WNEW-FM was going all the way with “meaningful” music.
The very term “meaningful” indicated his naÏveté when it came to the monster he was creating. “We spoke Russian,” said Jonathan Schwartz, years later at a reunion. “They [management] didn’t understand it. It was like we were speaking Russian.” Indeed the bosses didn’t know what they had; but ironically, neither did the jocks. They were “faking it,” according to Rosko, and some did it better than others as they hurried to educate themselves about a brand of music that was foreign to all except Muni. They only knew that there was an audience, a very vocal audience, who appreciated Metromedia’s picking up the baton from WOR-FM. They targeted advertising toward the youth market, placing print ads in
The Village Voice
and local college papers.
Mornings continued to be a simulcast of WNEW’s Klavan and Finch, until program director Nat Asch hired John Zacherle, who had no radio background but was a familiar figure on local television. Zach was moved to late nights in fairly short order, mainly because his poor eyesight caused him difficulty reading the studio clock. One morning as Duncan commuted from Westchester County, Zach said it was 8:15, causing Duncan to curse himself for being late for an important meeting. After breaking several traffic laws to minimize the damage, he discovered that he was actually early and the Zacherle had overstated the time by an hour—it had been 7:15.
Someone a bit more dependable was needed, so ex–Top Forty jock Johnny Michaels was brought in to hold down the morning gig. Everyone worked six days a week live, but were heard for seven since the weekend shows were taped in advance. Pay was scaled at $175 a week, and in the beginning there was little opportunity to make anything on the side.
It was a disparate group—“the crew of the SS
” as Muni would often describe them. Jonathan Schwartz, whose father, Arthur, had written “Dancing in the Dark” and a number of pop standards, had grown up in Southern California and New England, enjoying wealth and privilege. A childhood playmate was Carly Simon, of the Simon and Schuster publishing scions and later a talented singer-songwriter. He was able to afford an apartment and maintain an office at Carnegie Hall. A budding writer, he put together a collection of short stories entitled
and penned a semiautobiographical novel called
“Jonno,” as he was called, liked to dress shabbily in torn jeans and rumpled golf shirts. He was an intellectual and a clever raconteur who took pride in using certain multisyllabic words for the first time on a rock station. His trademark was the stories he would tell on the air, very much like Jean Shepherd did on WOR at the time. Whereas Shepherd rarely played music, Schwartz now was forced to step away from his background as a Sinatraphile and lover of standards—literally moving from Bing Crosby to David Crosby. He loved the sound of his own voice, which retained a slight Boston accent. Often he would play a song simply because he enjoyed saying the name of the band.
Bill “Rosko” Mercer was the star. His show began at six with a set piece, “a mind excursion, a true diversion” and “reality, the hippest of all trips” over the bass line of some cool jazz. He ended every night at ten with the words, “I sure do love you so.” He played jazz, blues, R&B, rock; his musical range was the widest on the staff. And he’d read stories by Shel Silverstein or poetry from
all in a voice that was the most exquisite ever heard on the FM airwaves. He had a mild, barely perceptible Southern lilt, but his sound was pure honey poured from a jar—gentle yet masculine, smooth yet crackling with emotion when the moment called for it. Originally perceived as a black militant, he was certainly the most political disc jockey in the station’s history. He didn’t hesitate to make his opposition to the Vietnam War known, expressing his criticism of the government in unambiguous language. He and Schwartz mixed like Israel and Iraq. At staff meetings, which Rosko always dominated with his highly opinionated convictions, they were often at each other’s throats and more than once had to be separated by Muni.
Zacherle first gained prominence as the host of late-night horror movies on the local ABC-TV affiliate. Made up like Lon Chaney in
Phantom of the Opera,
he’d approach these cheesy offerings with a warped sense of humor, often injecting his image into the film to make cryptic comments. He even had a number six hit record, “Dinner with Drac (Part One),” in 1958. The affection he engendered among the younger generation then translated to an emcee job with an afternoon dance party on a local UHF station. It was a parody on
gone bizarro, with Zach dressed up as the ghoul, muttering under his breath as precocious high school girls gyrated wildly to the new music.
But the dance party introduced him to the new rock and he formed a lasting bond with the music. So when a friend told him that WNEW-FM needed DJs in their new format, he contacted Duncan and Nat Asch. They originally hired him to do weekends, but the response from the now college-age audience that remembered him from his ghoul days was so great that he quickly moved into full-time. Asch felt they needed someone a bit different to do mornings and after consulting his teenage son who said Zach was cool, he got the job. His broadcasting skills were minimal: He broke every rule in the book and radio mavens were indeed horrified upon hearing him for the first time. When the engineer opened his microphone, he sounded as if he had been aroused from a deep sleep. First, you would hear papers rustling as he scrambled to gather his notes. His sentences featured long pauses interrupted by staccato bursts of rapid-fire mumbling, punctuated with his infectious chortling. Boris Karloff on acid might be an apt description. He very often forgot to keep track of what he played and would spend minutes either trying to remember or finding the scrap of paper he’d scribbled it on.
As a boss, Duncan could be an intimidating figure to some of the jocks who only saw the straightlaced ex-Marine aspect of him and missed his iconoclastic and playful side. But he led the WNEW-FM jocks with a sense of family, even after he ascended to head of Metromedia’s radio division. One DJ tells a story of how he was filling in for the morning show host when an FCC inspector showed up at 6 a.m., unannounced. This particular bureaucrat was notorious for his intimidating style and rigid enforcement of even the most arcane rules. He had bullied countless jocks into committing nervous mistakes on the air. The inspector was taking notes and asking detailed questions, making the young man even more edgy than he already was. A radio custom is to sign off the program logs in advance near the end of a shift so that you won’t forget. At 9:45, the skittish DJ logged off, stating the time as 10 a.m. The inspector jumped down his throat.
“How dare you sign this log as ten a.m., fifteen minutes early,” he scolded. He then extracted an official-looking form and wrote up the transgression. The shaken jock left the studio several minutes later, convinced that he’d not only lost his job but had endangered the station’s FCC license. The first person he ran into in the hall was George Duncan, ramrod straight in a blue serge suit, who asked him how he was doing.
This is it, I’m about to be fired,
the kid thought. Instead, Duncan placed his arm around him.
“You know that guy from the FCC?” Duncan whispered ominously. “Fuck him.”
According to Scott Muni, Duncan later scoured the accusatory report and found several procedural violations in the inspector’s tactics. He complained vociferously to his supervisor in Washington, which led to the man’s dismissal.
Under Duncan’s leadership, WNEW-FM began its wobbly journey from a miscast group with diverse backgrounds to a team of eclectic personalities that made radio history. Their mission was to explore the new world of rock, which was experimenting in art rock, blues, country and folk rock, psychedelia, and other progressive forms. But other radio conventions were left unchallenged.